A simple bill that had a profound effect on the country sparked a day-long celebration in Nebraska.
The Homestead National Monument in Beatrice celebrated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Homestead Act Sunday. President Lincoln signed the act in 1862, as the Civil War raged.
University of Nebraska history professor Kenneth Winkle moderated a panel discussion about the act, stating Lincoln had several goals in signing the law as the Civil War raged.
“Lincoln’s plan was to settle the Great Plains as quickly as possible to help win the Civil War, bring freedom and equality to the West, attract family farms and contribute to America’s unity and prosperity,” Winkle stated.
The Homestead Act became wildly successful. Approximately 1.6 million people took the federal government up on its offer of free land, settling 270 million acres of land. The migration of people west led to the creation of 30 additional states.
Someone did not have to be a United States citizen to take advantage of the offer. A person only needed to pledge their intent to become a citizen. Homestead National Monument Superintendent Mark Engler said that became a powerful incentive to move to America.
“And to promote this, the railroad agents were working countries around the globe, mainly Europe, saying, ‘Hey, if you move to the United States, they’ll give you free land.’ What incentive is that? And, yes indeed, as we all know, the people came.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, a member of the panel, said the Homestead Act disclosed a bit of President Lincoln’s vision for the country, often overshadowed due to the Civil Way. Johanns said Lincoln envisioned a much larger United States as public land moved into private hands.
“That’s the vision and the power of what happened with the Homestead Act,” according to Johanns. “It’s not just that it settled a state like Nebraska, it established an entrepreneurship in our country that survives even to today.”
Five years after the act’s signing, the Nebraska Territory gained enough population to apply for statehood.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Vice Chancellor John Owens teased Sen. Johanns by noting
the simplicity of such a significant law.
“Four pages, hand-written and the Morrill Land-grant Act was three pages, hand-written,” Owens stated, turning to Sen. Johanns. “I kind of think, Sen. Johanns, that if you guys would go back to three or four pages…”
Laughter interrupted Owens as Johanns suggested that would be a great idea.
Doug Kennedy, KWBE contributed to this report.